Ridgway, Pa. – Early on in his papacy, Pope Francis drew criticism with remarks that the Catholic Church had become obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that the Church had been guilty of putting dogma before love.
Recently, the Pope issued a survey to Catholics worldwide to get a “sense of the faithful” concerning the Church’s teachings on family-related issues. The overall results in America remain to be seen, but bishops in Switzerland and Germany have said that the results suggest that most Catholics find the Church’s teachings surrounding sex to be outdated and unrealistic.
“On the matter of artificial contraception, the responses might be characterized by the saying, ‘That train left the station long ago,’” Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla. recently wrote on his blog in reference to the survey.
Fr. Alfred Patterson, assistant pastor of St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart Parish, said that sometimes the media reports on discussions are in terms of black and white rather than exploring the issues in depth.
“Too often, you read about the point and counterpoint of a debate and there’s no middle,” he said. “Like with evolution, you have people who are creationists and then you have atheistic scientists, but they never get your normal Catholic priest who embraces both.”
Patterson emphasized that the Catholic Church is a global organization and that what is seemingly most important to American Catholics may not be on the front burner of what is going on in Rome. He also said that the current discussion may not be a matter of changing doctrine, but in changing focus.
“We should keep focus on what is important, but we shouldn’t deny the rest,” Patterson said. “Pope Francis’s immediate contribution is saying ‘Let’s not neglect the poor.’ The same principle that places value on unborn life is the same principle that places value on the poor and the starved.”
Patterson said that the core of Church doctrine doesn’t change, but the way Catholics understand and approach doctrine may change, citing the example of Jesus condemning legalistic views.
“A lot of us think that morality is following the rules, but it’s all about relationships,” he said. “One of the emphases is on family. Now family is not just about whether birth control is OK or whether sex outside of marriage is OK. It goes beyond rules. It’s about relationships. If the family is well cared for, then not only are the people healthy, but society is healthy.”
Patterson also mentioned how the Church treats unwed mothers as a change in attitude toward Church doctrine.
“In the past it was scandalous if an unwed woman got pregnant and had a baby, but nowadays I see that if somebody has a child out of wedlock, they don’t condemn, because they know that that pressure could very easily lead to someone having an abortion, so I do see a lot of support,” he said.
Patterson described Church tradition as a life story involving struggles and changing attitudes rather than a strict rulebook.
“Church tradition is the faith-life of the Church lived out over the centuries,” he said. “So I tell people that if you study Church history, you study change. How did we struggle with the issues? And today is a great example of how the church needs to look at things.”
Father Brian Vossler, pastor of St. Leo’s Parish in Ridgway, said that simply opening the door to these conversations speaks well of Pope Francis’s leadership.
“I think his approach speaks well of his own spirituality and his own sense of leadership and style,” Vossler said. “We’ve heard complaints about the Church that we lack in dialogue. He is very sensitive to communication coming from the people, the view from the pew, if you will.”
Vossler described Pope Francis as a man who “walks the walk and talks the talk.” He said that the Church can sometimes be too legalistic in its approach and applauded the Pope’s efforts to bring a more merciful and compassionate view.
“With homosexuality, I think it needs to be stated that the Church emphasizes the respect and dignity of all persons, no matter their orientation or their background,” Vossler said. “I think Francis wants to bring that dignity and respect. He wants to bring the attitude of Christ to those situations.”
Vossler referred to the strong division currently seen in the Methodist Church as an example of how any kind of change is sure to bring a reaction. He said that the Roman Catholic Church has been accused of moving too slowly but that this is only an effort to act in an informed and responsible manner.
“If there is going to be change, I’d think it would be gradual change,” Vossler said. “With Francis at the helm I think it would be very consultative. As a priest, I’m very faithful to my faith, to our Lord Jesus Christ and to the Church. If change comes from the top down, from Francis, I certainly would embrace those changes that would seem fitting and proper within the life of the Church.”